"It's Like a Safari, and We're the Zebras"
Inside the bizarre tourist trade at Harlem's Sunday church services.
Williams cites Abyssinian, which boasts a membership base in excess of 4,000 people, as the model for separating business from worship. It is the hottest, and most elusive, ticket among the Sunday services. Every Sunday morning, between 200 and 300 people wait outside of Abyssinian, hoping for a glimpse of its famed choir. Dozens of visitors each week never actually make it into the church: Abyssinian's parishioners have first dibs on the church's 1,000-plus seats. A church deacon warns potential visitors, "[T]his is a service and not a gospel concert. If you are here just for a gospel [concert], then there are other churches that can accommodate you."
But the reason foreign visitors come to Abyssinian—sometimes by the thousands—and other churches like it is clearly to see a performance, and claims that they won't get one ring hollow—even if services themselves are completely genuine. "Many of them come to see a church show," said Dr. Obery Hendricks, a religion professor at the New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University. "And what is sad is that often they're not disappointed." Hendricks sees disturbing racial and religious implications in the church tourism circuit that ties into the "performance orientation" among both African-American churches and many evangelical churches.
If you ask tourists why they visit, the answers are similar to those you might expect to hear on Broadway or at the Empire State Building: "It was in all the guide books." "My travel agent said that I just had to come." "It's so iconic from American movies." Frequently, they'll point to how different this style of worship is than what they are accustomed to.The music and the worshippers' enthusiasm are big draws. No one mentions race—at least not to an American journalist. I overheard a 19-year-old Parisian tell his parents, "Ils dansaient les negres"—"They were dancing, those Negroes." When I asked them why they had visited Kelly Temple, the group—a Jewish family with North African roots—said they were there because "it got two stars" in Routard, a popular French guide book that describes the church's "very authentic" program. "It's peculiar, you know," said the mother, who was clearly impressed. "They are very enthusiastic. You get the impression that they're really paying true homage to God."
The idea of "authenticity" is a major theme among tourists and the tourism industry. Harlem Spirituals' brochure offers the opportunity to "[a]ttend an authentic Sunday worship service and experience the soul stirring power of gospel music." For an additional $44, "[y]ou can enjoy a soul food brunch at one of Harlem's local restaurants." Fodor's New York guide, meanwhile, describes guided tours as "an expeditious, if not inauthentic way to experience Harlem" and encourages readers to try a more genuine DIY approach.
Though it's difficult to gauge, parishioners at participating churches seem to welcome the visitors. "They give your church publicity … so I have no problem with the tourists at all," 21-year-old Ray told me outside of St John Pentecostal Church on Lenox Avenue. Still, Harlem residents are very much cognizant of why the visitors come. "They're there to see how we worship," an elderly woman named Reda Beeks told me outside of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Tourists sometimes stop her on the street to ask, "Which church has the best show?"—sometimes even when she's not in church clothes.
Even if visitors are welcome at individual churches, there is a larger antipathy toward some of the tour buses. Williams said that, although the Chamber of Commerce works closely with some programs, tour guides are still too often filled with stereotypes and misinformation. "It's like you're going through a safari, and we're the animals as you are on the bus riding by, pointing at the zebras."
As an outsider, it is difficult to judge the tourists or the churches that welcome them. Still, entering a church where some are emptying their hearts in dramatic displays of worship and others are snapping photos made me feel as my tour-mate Frances did: that something might not be right.
View a slide show of Harlem's Sunday church tours.
Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.